It’s been almost two years since Rose Namajunas last wore the crown of UFC strawweight champion of the world — but that could all change Saturday night in Jacksonville.
It’s a place Namajunas has been before; a place where her extensive experience as a mixed martial artist has helped prepare her for the moments that lie ahead at UFC 261, which will lead to either triumph or torment.
For the 28-year-old who is gearing up for the fifth title fight in her career, while competing through the grueling five rounds of the battle that lies ahead itself doesn’t get any easier, the preparation does… but only a little bit.
“I guess [with more experience], you just know what to do and it’s up to you whether or not you’re going to do it. That’s the hard part,” Namajunas told the UFC.com in a fight week interview. “You know exactly what you’re supposed to do. With little experience, you might make a mistake because you didn’t know you were supposed to do something. But with more experience, there’s no excuse.”
The Ultimate Fighter, Season 20 alumna boasts a resume that’s revered by many, which includes dominant victories over fellow inaugural UFC strawweights Tecia Torres and Angela Hill, and eminent names like Paige VanZant and Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
MORE UFC 261: Fight By Fight Preview | Significant Stats | Public Events Schedule | Championship Reign: Valentina Shevchenko | Historic Milestones In Sight For Jessica Andrade | Rise of Zhang Weili | Top Finishes: Anthony Smith | Newcomer Liang Na
Up next on the list for Namajunas is a new type of test that lies within UFC strawweight champion Zhang Weili. Beaten only once — in her professional debut and undefeated in 21 fights since — and the first UFC champion to come out of China, Zhang has been a force to be reckoned with since her UFC debut in 2018.
“She’s a true martial artist. She does every discipline and is very unique but, at the same time, she’s kind of a hybrid of a lot of the fighters I’ve fought in the past. So it’s an element of a little bit of everything I’ve seen before with maybe just a little bit of uniqueness of her own,” Namajunas explained.
“Some of her coaches say that she looks at her opponents and uses their strength to either best them or implement it into her own game. I feel as though I do the same thing, so it’s very intriguing to me because I’ve never fought anyone like that before. I feel like I do that better than anybody, so it’s going to be really exciting.”
Namajunas is slightly less focused on the obvious things at stake — accolades, rankings, personal glory — and more attuned to the fact that she could have the unique opportunity that so few get: to redo life as the champ.
“I just had a lack of vision,” Namajunas explained of her time as the UFC strawweight champion from November 2017 to May 2019. “I think becoming the champ was the final destination, but I didn’t really have a clear vision as to what to do with it once I got it. I sort of got lost in that and sort of got anxious for things to be what they weren’t, and I got impatient and didn’t maintain gratitude. Those were some of the mistakes, and I learned a lot from it.”
"I think becoming the champ was sort of the final destination. I didn't have a clear vision of what to do with it."@RoseNamajunas describes her mindset heading into #UFC261 and what makes Zhang Weili a tough fight 🔊⬆️— UFC News (@UFCNews) April 22, 2021
Order #UFC261 ➡️: https://t.co/MkJRTc5e8J pic.twitter.com/8qWi8YjSak
The reign of “Thug Rose” lasted 554 days before she was upended by Jessica Andrade — an all too familiar opponent also fighting for a belt of her own on Saturday’s stacked card, this time against Valentina Shevchenko at flyweight.
In just under four months’ time, the belt shifted once again to a new shoulder, Zhang’s, in August 2019. With Namajunas’s name on the short list of contenders next in line for the title shot, there was one thing left on her mind: to set the record straight with Andrade.
UFC 261 FREE FIGHTS: Jessica Andrade vs Katlyn Chookagian | Rose Namajunas vs Joanna Jedrzejczyk 1 | Zhang Weili vs Jessica Aguilar | Kamaru Usman vs Gilbert Burns | Valentina Shevchenko vs Jennifer Maia | Jorge Masvidal vs Donald Cerrone
“I think that was very important for me. I was already offered Weili before I had rematched Andrade, but I really wanted to correct that mistake,” Namajunas said. “I still felt that before the slam, although I had put on a good performance, I still didn’t feel like I was myself, so I wanted to change that and fight more my style, and I did that. That was very important for me before challenging Weili, because I know she’s the champ, so I had to be fully focused on that.”
With her only loss in four-and-a-half years nullified, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin native was once again able to focus on the bigger picture: returning back to the strawweight throne.
Top Finishes: Rose Namajunas
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Top Finishes: Rose Namajunas
Namajunas said she’s been motivated in her training by Zhang’s “determination, her toughness, her grit. That’s something that’s pushed me a lot, and I’ve implemented into my own game. Her consistency. I’m expecting it to be intense, exhilarating, and I’m expecting me to focus all my energy on controlling my emotions and making sure the internal battle is won.”
With an impassioned amount of mental preparation, physical training and building of confidence, Namajunas is ready to reveal a transformed version of herself in the Octagon Saturday night.
“I think with the more experience that I’ve gained, the more I realize how important confidence is,” Namajunas said. “Once you can be honest and you can identify your fears and anxieties, it’s the only way you can attack and overcome them. That’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve implemented in my mental preparation. I think also from being the champ, I realized maintaining gratitude and a healthy positive perspective on life is also very key.”
As UFC welcomes back fans to fill the seats of VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, we can be sure that very few will actually be sitting, especially during this highly anticipated UFC strawweight title bout.